Posted by: ktzefr | January 13, 2017

12 Ways to Look at Soap

bunnyWhen I was in elementary school the kids raved about Ivory soap.  It was great fun, they said, because the bars float in the bathtub.  We didn’t have a bathtub.  “We use Camay,” I told them, “It’s pink and smells better than Ivory.”  Years later, I moved to the city and rented an apartment with a bathtub.  I bought Ivory soap and watched it float.  Still later, I showed my toddler son how the Ivory soap could float right along with the yellow rubber ducks.  It seemed important at the time.  I remember my mom saying that when she was young and had no money she saw so many beautiful things she wanted to buy, but when she finally had the money to get what she wanted, it didn’t matter anymore.  Timing is everything…and, in case you’re curious, Ivory Soap floats because it’s pumped full of air bubbles.


As a teen I tried every kind of soap I could find for acne, but nothing helped.  It took a long time to accept that breakouts went along with adolescence, at least for some of us, and soap was neither the culprit nor the answer.  Sometimes what we think is the “fix” doesn’t work, no matter how many times we try nor how much effort we put into it.


Why are soap operas called soap operas?  They have nothing to do with soap and they’re certainly not operas.  But, in the 1920s, everyone listened to radio and daily serials aimed at women became popular.  So the stations decided to find sponsors for these programs.  The first major sponsors were soap manufacturers — Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Lever Brothers.  Thus, the media dubbed them soap operas.


Cashmere Bouquet reminds me of the beach.  In my mind the flowery scent mingles with the salt air and the sound of wind chimes, the rush of waves, and the shouts of children.  It brings back memories of crab cakes and straw hats.  Of red noses.  Of that flushed, tingly-all-over feeling after a day in the sun.  Of porpoise sightings and flying kites.  Every few minutes in summer a small plane would fly along the coast trailing a banner that said “Paul Revere Smorgesbord, all you can eat $4.95.”  Imagine that.  Four ninety-five.  Today, $4.95 won’t even buy a bath bar of Cashmere Bouquet, a “favorite since 1872.”


Soap is not always for washing  — whether it’s real or fake.  My mother kept a dish of little soaps in the shape of rosebuds on a shelf in her bathroom.  They were blue and pink and white and smelled like roses.  But we had to remind the kids that the rosebud soap was “just for looks” — not for washing dirty hands.  Several years ago we were looking at a model house in a new development and my young son was surprised to find that almost everything in the house was plastic — the fruit in the bowls, eggs in the basket, bottles in the refrigerator, and the soap in the soap dishes.  “I don’t want to live in this house,” he said, looking anxious.  “Everything is fake.”


When bars of soap become thin slivers of themselves I toss them in the trash.  But some people save the leftover pieces, melt them down, and make new bars.  If only one could take the pieces of a life, rearrange them on occasion, and make a brand new person.


Laundry soaps used to be bought for the prizes.  Cheer had a dish towel inside every box and my mom collected them the way I collected Cracker Jack prizes.  She saved money by turning cow feed sacks into dresses and jelly jars into drinking glasses and she always hung the laundry outside to dry.  My clothes smelled of soap and sun, wind and rain.  One of my favorite places today, far removed from my own childhood but where I feel eerily at home, is an old hacienda in Mexico where the sheets and towels are hung to dry every day on a rooftop in the sun.


“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” Ms. Valentine said.  That’s what they taught us in school and we would all steal looks at Jimmy Doan in his dirty clothes.  His family was on relief, but we felt that was no excuse.  “Anybody can afford a bar of soap.”  That’s what our teacher said.  But she didn’t live in Jimmy’s house.  I had been there and I knew it wasn’t a matter of money.  Jimmy Doan’s family simply didn’t consider cleanliness to be next to godliness the way Ms. Valentine did.  He stayed an outsider at school until he finally quit.  Would a bar of soap have made any difference?


Years ago in the tropics we stayed at a place that used Riley’s soap and I always brought back the tiny samples.  During the rest of the year, the scent reminded me of all that I loved about being there — the night rains and cloudless morning skies, the wild donkeys that stirred in the woods at the edge of daybreak, and the constant chatter and songs of the rain forest birds.  I used the soap sparingly so I could stretch its magic and get as many “trips” as possible from it.


Lava soap.  Construction workers and coal miners liked it because it would clean anything — lift grease off a frying pan.  (In the 60s they advertised using Lava soap to prevent the spread of polio though there was no evidence that this was the case.)  I wonder if anyone ever blamed themselves for not washing with Lava when a family member took ill.  False advertising, like fake news, can bring false hope or unwarranted anger, fear, or sadness.  It’s amazing how much more staying power it has than the truth.


Lye soap.   Every Thanksgiving we butchered hogs and Mom and my Aunt Thelma made lye soap in a big black kettle that hung on a rod in the center of two poles in the backyard.  The kettle rocked back and forth above the fire and they stirred the pot with long wooden paddles.  Later, when the soap cooled, they cut it into large chunks the color of mottled honey. It looked bad and smelled bad.  We didn’t need it.  We had pink Camay.  But Mom and Aunt Thelma had been brought up to make lye soap.  It seemed the older they got the more they needed to do such things.  I suppose it was a holding-0n of sorts, to tradition, to the past, to their own childhoods.  The soap-making process once a year brought back memories, old stories, family secrets. 


The other day I checked out the different brands of soap at the store and was amazed by all the paraphernalia that goes along with bathing.  There’s a big market today in soap and related products.  Curious, I googled to see what the 10 top selling brands were in 2016.  Here they are: Dove Sensitive Skin, Paul Mitchell Tea Tree, Aveda Rosemary Mint, DHC Pure, Pangea Organics, Dove White, Chanel Coco, Beessential All Natural, Badger Organic, and Caswell-Massey Goat’s Milk and Honey. 

There’s no reason on earth for a human body to smell like a human body anymore.







  1. Bubbly, with the tidbits. Fine post. Never got in a lather about getting squeaky clean until a while back I was grifted some “Jack Black” soap. Nope, not the actor…but it does star in the shower.


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